In the spring of 1862, General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson catapulted to lasting fame by waging a campaign in Virginia's fertile and lovely Shenandoah valley that captured the imagination of the South and transformed the nature of the war. By turns careful and then dazzling in his maneuvers, Jackson utilized the valley's features to his own advantage. The two forks of the Shenandoah river served as moats, being crossed at only three places in 100 miles (160km) by bridges. The Massanutten Mountain massif ran down the heart of the valley for 50 miles (80km) as an immense bulwark and shield. The northeastern end of the valley reached a latitude north of Washington, and looked like a shotgun pointed at the Northern capital. A Unionist who fought in the region described its military character: 'The Shenandoah Valley is a queer place, and it will not submit to the ordinary rules of military tactics. Operations are carried on here that Caesar or Napoleon never dreamed of. Either army can surround the other, and I believe that both can do it at the same time.'
As Confederate options near Richmond and Petersburg narrowed in 1864, General Lee determined to take advantage of the valley again. He sent his trusted and able lieutenant, General Jubal A. Early, to raise Jackson-like hell in that vulnerable sector.
Significant operations had been under way in the valley for several weeks by the time Early arrived. General Grant's comprehensive plan to keep pressure up all across the Confederacy's frontiers included the dispatch of two tentacles toward the valley. General William W. Averell led an expedition in southwestern Virginia against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. He was successful in a stubbornly contested action at Cloyd's Mountain on 9 May 1864, but Averell's mission did not have a major direct impact on the war's main theater.
At the same time, General Franz Sigel pushed a force of some 10,000 men south up the valley (the rivers run nominally northward, so south is 'up' the valley) toward the vital Confederate depot and rail junction at Staunton. The German-born Sigel offered Grant and President Lincoln more political energy than military prowess, appealing as he did to the large population of German-born immigrants living in the North. A non-German in Sigel's army described the men's 'most supreme contempt for General Sigel and his crowd of foreign adventurers.' Even Grant admitted that he could not 'calculate on very great results' in western Virginia.
Against Sigel the Confederates mustered an army about half the size of their adversary's, led by General John C. Breckinridge, a former Vice-President of the United States and a future Confederate Secretary of War. The disparate fragments that made up Breckinridge's army included a detachment of boys who would become famous in the impending fighting, the teenaged cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (VM). On 15 May 1864 the two small armies clashed at the crossroads village of New Market, with control of the valley at stake. A steady rain complicated the brutal business of firing muskets and cannon, holding the acrid gunsmoke close to the ground and making the battlefield an eerie stage. Men from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut peered down from a commanding crest on the Virginians pressing toward them. Colonel George S. Patton I commanded a key Southern brigade; his grandson and namesake would win fame 80 years later in a very different war.
In the midst of the Confederate line marched the 250 young cadets. Several had just turned 15 years of age. 'They are only children,' Breckinridge said worriedly to an aide, 'and I cannot expose them to such fire.' The exigencies of the moment left him no choice, and the youngsters dashed forward through sheets of lead so 'withering,' their commander wrote, that 'it seemed impossible that any living creature could escape.' The boys charged in a torrential thunderstorm across a fire-swept field so muddy that it sucked some of their shoes from their feet, then dashed into the midst of the Federal cannon. Regular troops on either side of them had played an important role, but the VM1 cadets had behaved like veterans. Their youthful assault fostered a legend. Fifty-seven of them (21 percent) fell as casualties, 10 of those mortal. Among the dead lads was a grandson of Thomas Jefferson.
Breckinridge and his men chased Sigel north for miles, but the victory proved to be temporary. Breckinridge hurried across the Blue Ridge Mountains to help General Lee around Richmond. Sigel's military debits had finally outweighed his political assets and President Lincoln shelved him. General David Hunter reorganized Sigel's command and led it south again. On 5 June he destroyed a small, hurriedly assembled force led by Confederate General William E. 'Grumble' Jones (the nickname being well earned on the basis of Jones's personality) in the Battle of Piedmont. Ill-disciplined Confederate cavalry failed to perform at the crisis. When Jones fell dead his rag-tag army dissolved, and for the first time during the war, a Northern force gained control of the invaluable railroad junction and warehouses of Staunton. Hunter then moved south to Lexington, burning homes as he went - some of them belonging to his own kin, who seemed to receive especially harsh treatment. Soldiers torched the home in Lexington of Virginia's former governor, John Letcher, denying the family's women and children the chance to remove even clothing from the house before it became engulfed by the flames.
When Hunter crossed the mountains and closed in on Lynchburg, another vital railhead and supply depot, General Lee determined that he must be checked. To that end, he ordered Early to lead the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia westward. The corps made an obvious choice: it had been in the famed 1862 Valley Campaign under Stonewall Jackson, and many of the men lived in or near the valley. Early was an equally good choice because of his energy and determination. The fiery Virginian stood up in his stirrups while scouting the lines around Lynchburg, shook a fist at the Yankees, and bellowed his scorn
for both his enemy and the irregular Southern troops he was replacing: 'No buttermilk rangers after you now, you God-damned Blue Butts!' Early used the derisive term 'buttermilk rangers' to refer to stragglers, especially cavalry, ranging to the rear for refreshments instead of doing their duty. His difficulties with poor cavalry would bedevil operations for the next five months.
Early's seasoned troops chased the Federals away from Lynchburg on 17-19 June 1864. Hunter's men straggled through the trackless mountains in West Virginia on a weary march that took them out of operations for weeks. Early promptly turned north and moved steadily down the entire length of the valley and into the very outskirts of Washington, DC. En route he fought an engagement on 9 July near Frederick, Maryland, on the banks of the Monocacy river. A blocking force under Federal General Lew Wallace (who would write the classic novel Ben Hur after the war) fought all day to retard Early's advance
toward Washington. Wallace's troops eventually recoiled, but they had achieved their purpose.
President Lincoln worriedly wired to General Grant at Petersburg, urging him to come in person. Grant instead sent most of two corps of infantry to reinforce Washington - precisely the sort of result Lee had desired when he unleashed Early. Lincoln went to the forts on the
Although Federals outnumbered him by three-to-one, Confederate General Jubal A. Early put up a stout resistance in the northern Shenandoah valley in the autumn of 1864. In the Battles of Third Winchester (19 September), Fisher's Hill (22 September) and Cedar Creek (19 October), the Federals suffered considerably more casualties than they inflicted on their Southern foes - but they could afford the losses and Early could not. After Cedar Creek, Confederate presence in the once-fertile valley consisted of little more than a nuisance force of cavalry and irregular troops.
line outside Washington and came under desultory long-range fire. The Confederates did not get into the capital city proper, and could not have held it had they done so. As Jubal Early commented in summary: 'We haven't taken Washington, but we've scared Abe Lincoln like hell!'
Union forces pursued Early to the Potomac river as he retired, then to the slopes of the Blue Ridge, and then beyond to the Shenandoah river. Early's rearguard repulsed them along the way, then savagely turned on the Federals at Kernstown on 24 July, just south of Winchester. There the Confederates inflicted one of the most unmitigated thrashings of the war on their enemies, who suffered more than 1,200 casualties as against fewer than 250 Confederates lost. A few days later, General Grant sent a new commander to the Shenandoah valley, with strong reinforcements. His instructions to General Philip H. Sheridan were to whip Early, and then to turn the beautiful valley into 'a barren waste.'
Despite an enormous preponderance in numbers, Sheridan had a far easier time accomplishing the 'barren waste' element of his orders than he did in whipping Early. In the decisive battles of September and October, Sheridan was able to deploy more cavalry than Early had troops of all arms combined. Those cavalry, furthermore, enjoyed wide mobility on good horses, and carried weapons that dramatically out-performed the equipment available to the Southern horsemen. Early did not trust his cavalry. He had more than ample cause for queasiness, but his fractious relationship with the mounted arm only exacerbated a
The Shenandoah Valley Campaign, September-October 1864
deadly situation. In postwar quarreling with General Thomas L. Rosser, his chief cavalry subordinate during the campaign, Early referred to Rosser as 'a consummate ass,' compared him to Judas Iscariot, and suggested that if Rosser were to emulate Judas and hang himself, it would be 'the most creditable act' he could perform.
For more than six weeks, Sheridan followed Early's detachments hither and yon through the northern valley as the Confederates tore up the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad - a vital Federal artery - and feinted at supply depots as far north as the Potomac river. Early's energetic deployments convinced Sheridan that he faced far more enemy strength than actually existed. Finally, on 19 September, Sheridan hurled two corps through a narrow canyon east of Winchester and brought Early to pitched battle.
In bitter fighting that swirled across fields and woodlots between Red Bud Run and Abraham's Creek, exploding shells took a steep toll among ranking officers. Federal General David A. Russell, an accomplished brigade commander who had graduated from West Point and served in the ante bellum army, fell instantly dead when a shell fragment went through his heart. A piece of shell hit Confederate General Archibald C. Godwin in the head and killed him instantly. The highest-ranking casualty on either side was Confederate General Robert E. Rodes, perhaps the best division commander in the Virginia Theater, who also died from a shell fragment in the head.
Despite being direly outnumbered, the Southern infantry east of Winchester held their ground and inflicted staggering casualties on Sheridan's attackers. The moment of decision came from behind the sturdy defenders, northwest of the scene of the heavy fighting. A wall of Union cavalry swept into the northern outskirts of Winchester and simply overwhelmed the Confederate horsemen in front of them. Early had no choice but to collapse his outflanked main line and fight for time to get away before the enemy's mounted troops could deploy entirely behind his army. He succeeded in that effort, aided by the onset of darkness, falling back 20 miles (32km) to a strong position at Fisher's Hill.
George S. Patton, who had done so well at New Market, fell mortally wounded by another exploding shell during the retreat. Artillery fragments reaped an especially deadly harvest of braided officers on this
Early's Confederates fought Sheridan's Federals to a standstill east ofWinchester on 19 September 1864, but Northern cavalry eventually overran Early's left and decided the day. (Public domain)
day. The Third Battle of Winchester extracted more than 5,000 casualties from Sheridan's attackers. Early lost 1,700 men killed and wounded. He reported 1,800 men missing, but declared that many of them were 'stragglers and skulkers,' not prisoners.
Twice more in the next month Early would fight Sheridan. Each time the formula would resemble that of Winchester: Early's indomitable infantry would attack successfully or bloodily repulse their enemies, then Confederate cavalry on Early's left flank would collapse and unravel the entire line.
Sheridan pressed briskly forward toward Fisher's Hill on 20 September and on the 21st he skirmished as necessary to secure the ridges opposite Early's new position. Keeping steady pressure on his outnumbered and reeling opponent made good sense. General
George Crook, who would later achieve notable success in the Indian Wars in the southwestern United States, conceived a bold plan to unhinge Early's line. Crook proposed taking his entire corps up onto the slopes of Little North Mountain, which anchored the Confederate left, then moving south until he was in a position to turn the enemy line. Sheridan cavalierly, and characteristically, claimed for himself all of the credit for this battle plan, although his own preliminary proposal had been to launch an utterly impractical frontal assault on the opposite end of the line.
On 22 September, while the rest of Sheridan's army demonstrated straight ahead toward Fisher's Hill, Crook put his plan into action. It worked fabulously well, in part because Early had again positioned his unreliable cavalry at the most vulnerable segment of his position. The Confederates reeled southward again in total disarray, losing prisoners and cannon as they went. Early's defeated fragments did not stop until they had scampered more than 50 miles (80km). An onlooker heard a weary Confederate chanting a home-spun ditty that began, 'Old Jube Early's gone up the spout.' Early blamed his army for the rout. When a passing soldier yelled irreverently at the army commander, Early spat back, 'Fisher's Hill, god damn you,' believing that the very name of that embarrassment was opprobrium enough.
Sheridan had cause to believe that he had forever removed Early's little army from serious consideration, and set about destroying the valley systematically. His men killed thousands of animals, burned countless barns and mills, and destroyed
crops everywhere. The vandalism loosened or destroyed the reins of discipline in some instances, and Unionists went beyond warfare on agriculture to burn houses and savage civilian women in what Virginians called 'The Burning.' Ironically, the region most heavily affected included one of the largest concentrations of unflinching pacifists on the continent, most of them
Colonel George S. Patton I, grandfather of the Second World War general, commanded a brigade at Winchester until a shell mortally wounded him. (Public domain)
Mennonites or Dunkards; their buildings burned as briskly as anyone else's.
Southern cavalrymen, many of them watching their own homes aflame, could not stem the onslaught, but they took the chance to execute groups of enemy arsonists when they cornered them. War never treads gently, especially civil war, but the American strife in the 1860s had been amazingly civilized - until the fall of 1864. Rosser's enraged Confederate cavalry eventually stretched too far from infantry support and suffered a resounding beating on 9 October at Tom's Brook by Union cavalry under Generals George A. Custer, Wesley Merritt, and Alfred T. A. Torbert.
Incredibly, Early pushed back northward once more soon after Tom's Brook, a phoenix risen from the ashes, and by mid-October had again reached the vicinity of Fisher's Hill. Sheridan had concluded that his foe had been permanently vanquished, but the
Starting on 6 October. Sheridan's Federals systematically burned out the Shenandoah valley. (Public domain)
Starting on 6 October. Sheridan's Federals systematically burned out the Shenandoah valley. (Public domain)
small Southern force launched against him one of the most amazing surprise assaults of the war. Lee had sent Early reinforcements from Richmond, among them some of the army's most dependable units. Confederate generals reconnoitered Sheridan's camps from a towering aerie atop Massanutten Mountain and discovered that the Federals were strewn randomly across a wide stretch of rolling country north of Strasburg and Cedar Creek, with scant attention to tactical considerations. They hatched a daring plan.
General John B. Gordon led a long, stealthy, circuitous march along a trail so primitive that he called it 'a pig's path.' Gordon's column crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah, crept across the nose of a mountain, and came back to the river opposite the unsuspecting left flank of Sheridan's force. At dawn on 19 October, they splashed into the stream and dashed up the opposite slope into camps full of sleeping Yankees, screaming the chilling 'Rebel Yell' as they ran. The onslaught routed the entire Federal VIII Corps. The Federal XIX Corps fought bravely for a time, but the momentum of the Southern surprise attack overwhelmed them too, and swept north to the vicinity of the village of Middletown.
Only the Federal VI Corps remained unassailed and unbroken. Together with the unhurt Northern cavalry, the VI Corps numbered as many men as Early's entire army, but staying the Rebels' momentum proved to be a difficult task. General Horatio G. Wright, commander of the corps, was acting as army commander that morning in Sheridan's absence. Wright deserves far more
As the winter of 1864-65 drew to a close, Petersburg's days as the last bastion of the Confederacy were starkly numbered. Federal thrusts farther and farther west to Burgess' Mill and Hatcher's Run had stretched Lee's lines impossibly thin. A final Confederate offensive at Fort Stedman on 25 March won brief, illusory success, before ending in a costly repulse. At Five Forks on 1 April and all around Petersburg on 2 April, Northern troops broke the Confederate line and forced the abandonment of the city. A desperate stand by a handful of Southern troops in Fort Gregg bought time for Lee's army to slip away and dash westward in a vain attempt to escape from Virginia and continue the war in North Carolina.
Was this article helpful?